In the days of British Rail, I was a user of the Shrewsbury–Aberystwyth line. Around 1990, new sprinter trains — faster and running to a clockface timetable — were introduced. Within a year or two usage of the line had doubled.
It was with some dismay then that users received the news that a number of ticket offices along the line would either be closed completely or have opening hours drastically reduced, as a major cost saving exercise. The Users Group arranged a public meeting and invited the BR area manager.
“The line has doubled its usage — why the need for cost cutting?” was the theme of questions, to which the area manager replied, “Yes, its usage has doubled. That means that for every £1 of fare revenue on this line, the taxpayer now only has to find £6, instead of £7”.
Such information is sadly no longer publicly available. With privatisation came a cloak of commercial secrecy.
We know that rail services in general are subsidised, and rightly so. We are told that in the UK about half the cost of rail travel is paid by the taxpayer — and the taxpayer proportion is higher in most other countries. The benefits of train services are spread throughout society. They provide economic, social and environmental benefits to the entire community. We also know that rural rail is by far the most subsidy consuming, in terms of amount per passenger, while some services on heavily used lines are commercially profitable.
But, we have little idea how the subsidy is spread or allocated. The labyrinthine complexity of the present quasi-privatised system makes it impossible to know. This will change though. The Transport Secretary has said, in response to the McNulty Report (on Rail Value for Money), that in future all subidies will be transparent, so that we know how much each train costs to run and how much revenue it earns, and what each passenger journey costs.
Also, the subsidies will become locally accountable as far as practicable. This was in the recent report on decentralisation and localism.
Both these policy statements need to be taken together. What they mean is that the local Transport Authority — in our case Devon County Council — will take over responsibility for subsidies for local train services. It will know how much each line, each station and each train costs. It will need to pay to keep them going, pay to improve services, and seek to improve value for money.
Presumably the Council will get a share of national funds, rather than have to raise Council Tax. If local accountability means anything, it will be able to allocate its budget as it sees fit. It will have to decide on priorities, and have the flexiblity to shift resources between trains, buses, roads — perhaps schools — although I suspect that national Government will retain some controls on the resource split between public transport and and other services.
This brings me to an interesting question. If rural railways are so hideously expensive, and Councils have to pay from a limited but flexible budget, what will they do?
In our northern Devon case we have the Tarka Line. NDPTU research (“Facts and Figures”) shows how it is used, and for some stations, barely used at all. It also shows that by extending journey times to serve lots of small stations en route, an extra train is needed to maintain an hourly service. Supposing it costs £250,000 a year to lease a train. Another £250,000 to staff, fuel and maintain it. Then we have a number of very lightly used stations. Each must be maintained, with access and communications. A figure of £10,000 a year for each is probably in the right area.
Now, we have 8 lightly used stations totalling 116 footfalls a day between them. That’s not passengers per day; almost all will be return trips, so 60 people a day use them, on average. Now do the maths. A train to serve those 8 stations, and the stations themselves, costs £580,000 a year. Divide by 60. That’s … nearly £10,000 (£9,666.66 to be precise) per person pro rata per annum.
OK so it may not be the same 60 using the line every day — but does that make any difference?
Looking at it another way, 40,658 passenger journeys a year using these 8 stations costs £580,000 — that’s more than £14 per journey.
That figure only relates to the cost of the extra train and the stations. It does not include the bulk of the general subsidy to rural rail lines. So the true cost of each of those journeys is probably much more — perhaps double.
Now let’s have a look at what Devon County Council spends on buses. According to its 2011–12 budget book, 23.4 million bus journeys a year are made in Devon, of which 8.4 million journeys are on subsidised services, costing £6,070,000. I make that 75p per journey. Or, if the cost is spread over the whole bus network, it’s 39p per journey. Do buses get a national subsidy? Could somebody tell me please?
Of course, my figures and maths may be wrong. If so, and you have bettter information, then please tell.
I wonder what Devon County Council will do when it gets to oversee the subsidy for the Tarka Line. Will it continue to subsidise a few dozen rural commuters more than 10 grand a year each? Will it stop cutting the meagre subsidy to bus services?
I hope that it takes the opportunity for a major review of public transport funding and provision. Let the train do what it is intended for — a fast and comfortable service for long journeys. Leave out the silly stuff, while extending bus services which are used by many more people for shorter journeys.
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